Arizona copper-mining row pits economy against scenery

Wasp Canyon Mining opponents fear Wasp Canyon will be dug up and destroyed for copper

Activists are campaigning to stop a massive copper mine being blasted into a beautiful Arizona mountain range. But advocates for the state's $12bn (£7.6bn) mining industry tell the BBC's Jonny Dymond the state has other scenic spots - and they have to dig where the metal is.

"Have you got four-wheel drive?" asks one of the passengers nervously as the car heaves up a 45-degree incline with scree tumbling beneath the tires.

The drive up to Wasp Canyon Overlook is not for the faint-hearted.

But the view from the Overlook, about 10 miles (16km) out of Tucson, is worth it. There are some places where you think the land has been touched by God. This is one of them.

A few miles away is the Santa Rita mountain range: harsh-peaked, grey-blue mountains stretching away into the Arizona sky.

Toxic dust fears

In front of them the desert is dotted with green even in the dry season; a dozen vultures slowly circle up above. Cacti bloom yellow flowers.

It is breathtakingly beautiful. And it is where a mining company wants to dig a new open cast copper mine.

The Mission Mine The Mission Mine has been quarried for more than half a century

Up on the Overlook, half a dozen members of the Save the Scenic Santa Ritas campaign group list their objections. Sometimes they talk over each other, such is their passion.

Toxic dust, they say, will poison the air. The site is too close to the city of Tucson; the find is not of the quality the miners claim; animal corridors will be impacted; there is no transport infrastructure.

Depressingly ugly

But most of all, there is grief over the loss of such beauty to a mine about which they have so many doubts.

Start Quote

It is a pretty part of the state, but there are a lot of pretty parts of the state”

End Quote Katherine Arnold Rosemont Copper

"Less than 1% of the income of this area comes from mining, yet we have to give up all of this," says Morris Farr, a slim and darkly tanned retiree.

"We have to give up some of the future of Arizona - because people are going to want to live, visit, play here - for what? For a very small contribution that is gone in 20 years."

About an hour's drive from the proposed Rosemont site is the kind of mine that the protesters fear. The vast Mission pit, an open cast mine that has been quarrying for more than half a century.

It is a vast and depressingly ugly place: Twenty thousand acres (8,000 hectares) of trucks and pipes and supply roads, and everywhere piles and piles of waste rubble.

This is what it takes to get copper out of the ground. It is not pretty.

Huge impact

In hard hat and work boots, Doug Austin guides tour groups around the mine, gleefully informing them of the size of truck tires and the scale of the site.

Doug Austin Doug Austin leads tour groups in the mine

The pit is two miles (3.2km) across one way, 2.5 miles the other, and 1,500ft (457m) down. Enormous trucks look like toys as they trundle around the hole in the ground.

"They move around 170,000 tons of material a day," Doug Austin bellows over the noise of the mine. "Everything around the bus, from the right, all the way around - all of that is waste. We have enough material out of here to build seven Panama canals."

The people behind the proposed Rosemont mine say that their pit will be very different from the Mission mine. Technology has changed, they say. Mining is lower impact, reclamation is more advanced, water use much lower.

But it is impossible to deny that the new mine will have a huge impact on the area, and Katherine Arnold, Rosemont Copper's vice-president for environmental and regulatory affairs, does not try to.

"It is a pretty part of the state, but there are a lot of pretty parts of the state," she says. "Minerals are where they exist and unfortunately if you find them, you have to mine them where they are."

And to those that say that copper is part of the state's past, that it has no part in the new Arizona economy, Ms Arnold has a pretty robust response.

BBC map of Arizona

"They are wrong," she says.

Arizona was hit hard by the home foreclosure crisis and has yet to recover. And it has an 8.2% unemployment rate.

Copper mining contributed roughly $12.1bn to Arizona's economy in 2010, including wages, sales to copper producers, state and local government revenues, and indirect contributions, according to figures provided by the Arizona Mining Association.

The industry directly and indirectly funded more than 73,000 jobs, the association says.

"Our entire infrastructure depends on natural resources and how they are used," Ms Arnold says.

"The reason the United States is one of the richest nations on earth isn't because we have tourism.

"Disney is great, but that's not why we are the richest nation on earth. It's because we have natural resources, and we put them to use and we put them into the economy."

There are plenty of museums and monuments to Arizona's mining past. Some in the state would like copper mining to be nothing more than a tourist attraction.

But Rosemont Copper says it will start preparations for the mine in a few months. Copper still runs deep beneath the stunning landscape of the South-West.

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